Whales in Captivity: Are They Legally Slaves?

A pending lawsuit can change how we perceive and use other animals

Posted Oct 26, 2011

Whales and dolphins are very smart and emotional beings. They are considered ambassadors for marine ecosystems and a recent summary of their cognitive and emotional lives shows clearly that they are wantonly and routinely mistreated and greatly suffer at the hands of humans in captivity and in the wild. We just don't see it because so much of it goes on in troubled waters beneath the surface. 

Now, the legal status of these iconic animals is being tested in a pending law suit. In the first case of its kind, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is "accusing is accusing the SeaWorld parks of keeping five star-performer whales in conditions that violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery." (see also) SeaWorld of course dismisses the suit as baseless, but it's likely it won't disappear all that rapidly. In the past SeaWorld has been cited for placing profit over safety.The five wild-captured orca plaintiffs are Tilikum and Katina (confined at SeaWorld Orlando) and Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises (confined at SeaWorld San Diego; for more on Tilikum see). 

The suit, which PETA will file in U.S. District Court in San Diego, "hinges on the fact that the 13th Amendment, while prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, does not specify that only humans can be victims." While this suit will surely be controversial, many experts see it as bringing to the surface the various and difficult issues that center on the question of who these amazing beings are and why it is permissible to treat them as mere property for our own selfish ends and to their detriment. There is no doubt that the lives of whales, dolphins, and other animals are severely compromised in captivity and that they often are used as mere money-makers in "whale mills." For a comprehensive report on why orcas should not be kept in captivity click here.

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who proposed extending legal standing to chimpanzees, thinks it is doubtful that courts are ready to apply the 13th Amendment to animals. But he welcomes the PETA lawsuit "as a potentially valuable catalyst for 'national reflection and deliberation' about humans' treatment of animals." Cruelty can't stand the spotlight and I too can't wait to see where this suit leads. 

You can sign a petition here to ask The Blackstone Group, the company that owns SeaWorld, to immediately set in place a firm and rapid plan to release the animals to sanctuaries that can provide them with a more natural environment.

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